Towards an inclusive strategy for monga mitigation
Wednesday, 06 February 2008

Whatever the package of programmes developed by the newly formed committee to deal with monga in a coordinated and concerted manner, it must include the views and concerns of the local people meaningfully. Only then would the action plan have genuine ownership of the people as well as their commitment unlike the poverty reduction strategy paper that was developed at the behest of the international financial institutions without conducting inclusive and exhaustive consultations with all sections of the citizens ranging from the peasants to the lawmakers

Tanim Ahmed

THE FIRST meeting of the council of adviser outside the capital, in Rangpur on February 2, discussed among other things possibilities of mitigating the near-famine situation called monga in the northern part of the country and made more than a dozen decisions. As the chief adviser to the military-controlled interim government, Fakhruddin Ahmed, reportedly explained the decision to hold this kind of meeting in Rangpur, there were a number of regional issues to be addressed and so there are.

Besides the recurring phenomenon that haunts poor farming households for at least two months every year, many of the northern districts have higher poverty rate, perhaps because of the absence of non-agricultural employment from industries. The meeting also decided to form a committee headed by the adviser for education and commerce, Hossain Zillur Rahman, to formulate an effective strategy involving multidimensional approaches to mitigate monga.

The government’s bid to bring itself closer to the people that it serves, while commendable, however, hardly had the means to accommodate the voices of the local people, especially since the meeting discussed problems of the locality and furthermore since none of the participants. While it very well might be that the demand for a university in the region remains a long-standing one, consultations may well have indicated that the need of the hour for the local people is quite different and not really related to the functioning of the regional airports or establishment of a university.

It would be expected, however, that the committee to tackle monga would work in a more inclusive manner to alleviate the reasons of chronic poverty in the region. The indications that the chief adviser has given as regards a strategy to mitigate poverty as reported on February 4 – migration, training of skilled human resource or more intensive cultivation of the BR 33 paddy – would hardly address the central problem, which is lack of non-agricultural employment.

The first two presume the continuation of poverty in the northern regions and thus suggest employment in other areas, whereas the third one would only lessen the duration of monga but in no way eliminate the famine-like situation. Cultivation of the new variety of rice has already begun in the region and helps substantially to partially shorten the duration of the famine-like situation that mainly arise out of unemployment since this particular variety of rice takes a shorter time to bear fruit and is ready to harvest at least two weeks before the traditionally cultivated ones. Thus the locals have an opportunity to engage in some form of employment.

But before promotion of widespread usage of this variety there must be enough research regarding its yield, nature and quantity of inputs and how it could be balanced with the other higher yielding varieties. Regardless of the yield and merits of BR33, cultivation of this particular variety of rice would not eliminate the reason behind unemployment for almost two months but would perhaps shorten it to about a month and a half and that too for a portion of the local populace. As for migration, people in the northern districts are more or less aware of the employment opportunities at other cities and industrial centres of the country.

Many of them regularly travel to Dhaka, Chittagong and other cities in search of work but this temporary migration hardly alleviates the poverty or hardship of their families. Training of skilled human resources, on the other hand, presumes the availability of employment and posits that the obstacle is the level of skill or that this employment should be sought elsewhere. It has been pointed out repeatedly by many that the essential problem of the northern districts is that availability of industrial employment is scarce.

The obvious answer to that problem is establishment of industrial units in the northern regions, for which the government must provide directed incentives. This could be in the form of lower interest rates and taxes for industrial in the designated districts. At the same time, the infrastructure support and utilities in the region must be developed for private quarters to become interested there.

The overall disadvantages, in short, should be overcome with the directed incentives. But establishment of industrial units would be essential since such economic activity would lead to wealth creation and a spur into action an entire chain of economic activity that would go a long way in infusing dynamism in the local economy.

Smoothening temporary migration or skills training so that people might find work elsewhere would leave the domestic economy of the northern districts as it is which would mean that they remain vulnerable economically. It should be kept in mind that the most affected people of the region happen to be residents of the numerous shoals of the Brahmaputra and Teesta besides a host of rivers that criss-cross the northern districts. Another group are the landless farmers.

Therefore, the programmes should strive to ensure that these groups are the most benefited through whatever programmes the government initiates. One of the main problems that the shoal residents face is communication as it is mostly irregular, slow and costly. At the height of monga a two-hour trip from Char Jhunka to the nearest public hospital at Kurigram sadar and back costs a person two days’ income.

A sick child or a sudden illness could spell doom for a labourer. It would basically mean that the entire family would be hurtled into debt for several years, if not a whole generation. Any package of programmes must include robust plans to address the health and education needs of the rural populace in these districts. It is unfortunate that the northern districts, although producing the bulk of the country’s food grains every year, also have the highest poverty rate and the highest proportion of landless farmers.

It is understandable that developing infrastructure or establishment of industrial units would take a number of years during which time the government should substantially increase its development programmes in the region in the form of food or money for work instead of the currently running vulnerable group feeding programme which is over prioritised and chosen as an easy option.

The day the council held a meeting in Rangpur several thousand residents of the Ghogadaha Union or Kurigram came together on February 2 and voluntarily worked for the community. One Syed Hossain was quoted in the Bangla daily Prothom Alo as saying he felt much better being able to do something for the community as he lives on government rations almost the entire year. The small incident actually indicates that people of the region would happily work for their livelihoods if it were available and in the process would feel much better about themselves.

Food for work programmes as part of the government’s development projects could well provide a number of people with that opportunity. Whatever the package of programmes developed by the newly formed committee to deal with monga in a coordinated and concerted manner, it must include the views and concerns of the local people meaningfully.

Only then would the action plan have genuine ownership of the people as well as their commitment unlike the poverty reduction strategy paper that was developed at the behest of the international financial institutions without conducting inclusive and exhaustive consultations with all sections of the citizens ranging from the peasants to the lawmakers.

It would be expected that Hossain Zillur, who had authored the poverty reduction strategy paper, given the absence of a parliament and no effective public representation in the decision making process of the country, takes into cognisance the demands of the people who will be directly affected by the proposals that his committee comes up with. Inflation needs to be reined in Inflation spurred by spiralling food prices has remained in the double digits for six months beginning from July till December and presumably will continue to do so.

We are alarmed that food inflation has consistently outstripped the general inflation trend and appears to have become the main driving force behind the phenomenally increasing cost of living. At the same time, we see little effort from the government to increase investment or effectively provide for means to employment for the poorer sections of the people.

We have stated a number of times before that the economic trend suggests that people, especially those from the lower-income groups, have had to spend more on their food while they have either lost their jobs or have not had opportunities to get new jobs. The rising prices have also meant that their real income has decreased. Figures indicate that the economy’s growth will be less than that attained for the last two years and it is presumed that both industry and agriculture, the two main sources of employment and livelihood for a major proportion of the population, has been hit and are currently almost stagnant.

Reports also indicate that the government has in the last six months been only able to spend just about a fifth of the annual development programme worth Tk 26,500 crore. While the military-controlled interim government has actively decided to cut jobs by shutting down a number of state owned enterprises, its policies on other fronts have led to a complete slowdown of private investment – both foreign and local – and thus to a slowdown of the economy.

It is obvious that business quarters at home and abroad do not consider the circumstances in Bangladesh, political or economic, stable or predictable, and are, therefore, holding back their funds till such time that they believe will be friendly to investment and business.

In the meantime, the government could have at least begun to address the impact of inflation and ensure that its effect on the lower-income groups is alleviated through increased public spending and expeditious implementation of its development programmes. We cannot but disagree with the finance adviser, Mirza Azizul Islam, when he says he is not worried about the high price of rice since it has ‘stabled’. It only suggests that the people of the country have the capacity to buy rice at the current levels, which they do not.

The incumbents should on the one hand provide subsidies for the coarse variety of rice to ensure availability of affordable food and on the other increase public spending immediately to increase the purchasing capacity of the people. Instead of citing apparently sacrosanct principles of the open market, the incumbents should make meaningful and effective interventions in the market and regulate it strongly in the interest of the public. It must initiate measures to ensure the populace in general gets some respite from the price crunch that is becoming increasingly unbearable.

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